Tom Maxwell | Longreads | February 2019 | 16 minutes (3,055 words)

Sonny Rollins was busy in 1957. The tenor saxophonist was present for about sixteen recording sessions, some private, most released, with his own bands as well as with groups led by Miles Davis, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and Kenny Dorham. His landmark A Night At The Village Vanguard, a live recording of two sets, one in the afternoon and one in the evening performed on November 3rd at New York’s legendary jazz club, became a standard by which other improvisers are judged. In addition, Rollins debuted at Carnegie Hall and headlined the first Monterey Jazz Festival the following year.

“When I look back, people say, ‘Oh, you did a lot of records in 1957…’ Well, I mean, I had to be told about it,” Rollins recently told an interviewer. “So, I guess it was more or less of a norm, you know.”

As luck would have it, there was an additional, forgotten Sonny Rollins recording from that year. Voice of America taped the Sonny Rollins Trio performance at Carnegie Hall on November 29, 1957. Named “Thanksgiving Jazz,” this benefit show for the Morningside Community Center featured an all-star bill that included Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, and the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. The tapes were discovered in the Library of Congress vaults during a digitization process in 2005. They’d been recorded, never broadcast, and forgotten.

Inspired by the discovery, Rollins decided to hold a 50th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall in 2007, where a new trio would play the same three songs he performed 50 years earlier, with the intention for Rollins’ label to release both performances. This album got shelved — and not, this time, because of a lack of resources or label interest. Even though he liked the idea in theory of releasing two recordings united by place but not time, Rollins wasn’t satisfied with the final product. As we all know, the only difference between theory and practice is practice. The same goes for music as it does for life.

Emerging even as he did from an era of stellar sax men, Sonny Rollins stands out. Born Theodore Walter Rollins in Harlem, New York, in 1930, Rollins initially emulated his idol, Coleman Hawkins. (Hawkins’s 1939 version of “Body and Soul” was the blueprint for tenor saxophone improvisation and phrasing.) Before he turned 20, Rollins was working with Miles Davis and apprenticing with Monk. “People loved Sonny Rollins up in Harlem and everywhere else,” Davis wrote in his autobiography. “He was a legend, almost a god to a lot of the younger musicians. Some thought he was playing the saxophone on the level of Bird. I know one thing — he was close.”

As luck would have it, there was an additional, forgotten Sonny Rollins recording from that year.

Rollins may have been inspired by Charlie “Bird” Parker, but he is his own man. Tonally somewhere between the rhythmic enthusiasm of Illinois Jacquet and the breathy lyricism of Zoot Sims, Rollins developed an innovative style. His solos are discourses of melodic association, here brash and there reflective, often throwing in quotes from other songs or humorous asides. His control of the instrument’s range is absolute, and he sometimes modulates its tone to resemble a trumpet. He has a limitless capacity for musical commentary and thematic development, all acquired well before the age of 30.

“I don’t think I was trying to consciously create a new sound,” he told JazzWax. “I had been a follower of all of the great players. … What came out was just Sonny Rollins.”

Even as Rollins ran with the most forward-thinking bebop crowd, he was perfectly happy to play calypso, the Carnival music of Trinidad (his parents were from the West Indies), as well as old-school Harlem minor key creepers à la early Duke Ellington. Likewise, he had no problem recording cornball material and making it sumptuous, like his version of “I’m An Old Cowhand.”

And then, in 1956, Rollins did the hardest thing imaginable: He led a trio without a piano. Jazz trios were nothing new — Nat “King” Cole made himself famous with one — but they usually included pianos. Rollins’s group was comprised of drums, double bass, and tenor saxophone. This meant no chordal structure, and no other frontline soloist with whom to tag out. This simply wasn’t done. Rollins filled the breach beautifully, stating the melody, reformulating the melody, meditating on the mode, developing a theme, and making sundry free associations. The trio setting wasn’t even pared down enough for Rollins’s ambition: “It Could Happen To You” from 1957’s The Sounds of Sonny is the first of his unaccompanied solo recordings.

“What I got out of it,” Rollins once said of his trio work, “was that, for better or for worse, I had an opportunity to play what was in my head. I was free.”

We don’t have access to the Carnegie Hall trio recording of November 1957 — Rollins hasn’t released it — but we do have A Night At The Village Vanguard, recorded less than a month earlier. Upon listening, it’s immediately clear why Rollins didn’t need a pianist. For starters, he’s the soul of discursion, throwing out overblown musical quotes one moment and startlingly fluid runs the next. There’s not a piano player alive who could have anticipated this kind of playing, much less kept up with Rollins, who runs at a gallop. The performances on Vanguard are a gleeful reconstruction of every musical formality that came before, with each gesture already mastered.

“There was a time when if you wanted to hear Sonny Rollins, you had to come to the Village Vanguard,” wrote the club’s owner, Max Gordon, in his memoir. “He played the Vanguard four times a year, every year for ten years, once as a sideman with Miles Davis but mostly with a quartet of his own.”

“The Vanguard was sort of the premier room at that time,” Rollins told NPR last year. “A lot of guys played there, and they all seemed to express the music without any sort of impediment. I felt particularly comfortable.”

The next month, another Sonny Rollins trio took the stage at Carnegie Hall. Although part of the Vanguard sessions featured the near-perfect lineup of Wilbur Ware on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, Rollins had no working band at the time. “I was very tough on guys,” he said. “And during that whole period when I was at the Vanguard, I remember I was firing a lot of guys that came in to audition by playing a set. I let go of a lot of people. I know that I was a pretty hard taskmaster at that time.”

This time, Rollins was accompanied by bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Dennis. The group appeared at the bottom of a plainly stellar bill, beneath Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie. “Introducing in concert,” it read at the bottom, “the brilliant Sonny Rollins.”

Because they were a special attraction, the group’s performance was kept short. One set consisted only of “Moritat” — better known as “Mack the Knife” — the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill song from The Threepenny Opera made famous two years before by Bobby Darin. Rollins’s first version appeared on his breakthrough Saxophone Colossus album of the previous year.

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“Sonnymoon for Two,” an original which also would appear on the yet-to-be-released Vanguard album, and “Some Enchanted Evening,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein number from the musical South Pacific, constituted the second set. And that was that.

Happening at the end of a jam-packed year over a half century ago, the event is not complete in Rollins’s memory. “The only thing I do remember is that Ray Charles followed me,” Rollins told the Associated Press, “and I was proud of the fact that we were getting a lot of applause and he couldn’t get on right away. It just gave me a little boost that I could keep the great Ray Charles waiting.”

Sonny Rollins left Carnegie Hall that night and carried on building his reputation as the most innovative tenor saxophonist of his generation. Jazz fans and critics allowed for only one other man as his competition: John Coltrane. Trane also appeared at Carnegie on November 29, performing in Thelonious Monk’s quartet. “Only now, since Coltrane and I are no longer contemporaries, am I able to listen to him and adapt some of his ideas,” Rollins told writer Marc Myers in 2008. “This wasn’t possible back in the late 1950s and 1960s. As you know, there were two schools back then — Sonny and Coltrane. That’s a result of the fans, so both schools had to remain separate.”

It was evident, as the ’50s drew to a close, that Rollins had the upper hand in this fictitious competition. (The two men met on a gig with Miles Davis in the late 1940s and remained friends. “He was like a preacher in a way,” Rollins told MOJO. “Coltrane didn’t waste time. He didn’t do things frivolously. Everything he did was important. Whenever we got together, it was always a communion, talking about things that mattered. There was no jive. It was always meaningful. It was a great boon to me, to get a level of closeness with him.” They duetted on 1956’s epic “Tenor Madness.”) In 1959 Rollins walked away from all of it.

“I was getting very famous at the time and I felt I needed to brush up on various aspects of my craft,” Rollins once said. “I felt I was getting too much, too soon, so I said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m going to do it my way.’ I wasn’t going to let people push me out there, so I could fall down. I wanted to get myself together, on my own. I used to practice on the bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge because I was living on the Lower East Side at the time.” Commensurate with his level of dedication, if not obsession, Rollins’s practice sessions often lasted up to 16 hours.

Rollins returned to the public life, but dissatisfied with the commercial side of the profession and increasingly interested in Eastern religion, he took another sabbatical in 1966. He’s been with us ever since his return in 1972, never looking back, continuing to hold himself to the highest standards, and reliably dissatisfied with the results.

“In 1963 the Library of Congress acquired approximately 50,000 tapes and discs of cultural programming, including jazz, from the Voice of America,” Larry Appelbaum, senior music reference specialist in the music division at the Library of Congress told Jazz Times. “In recent years, the Library has embarked on a project to systematically process, catalog and digitally preserve this collection. As the supervisor of the Library’s Magnetic Recording Laboratory, I was thumbing through some tapes awaiting digitization in early 2005 when I noticed eight 10-inch acetate reels of tape labeled ‘Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957.’” These were the recordings of the November 29th Carnegie Hall show.

Even though these tapes contained recordings of Sonny Rollins’s Carnegie Hall debut, what really quickened everyone’s pulse was the performance of Thelonious Monk’s Quartet featuring John Coltrane. This particular lineup only lasted six months. Their performance was jaw dropping, and the recording quality top-notch — especially compared to the only other available live recording of the band. Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall was released in 2005, to great critical and commercial success.

“We sent a copy [of his trio performance] to Sonny Rollins … and I never heard a word back from them,” Appelbaum told the Washington City Paper in October 2007. “Then last month I read in Ben Ratliff’s New York Times piece that they are going to release it along with the recordings of his recent Carnegie Hall concert inspired by the discovery of the 1957 tapes.”

Indeed, Sonny Rollins had booked a 50th anniversary show at Carnegie Hall. “I thought it would be interesting to reprise the material,” he told the Associated Press. “Let’s hope that the ‘now’ sounds better than the ‘then.’ I’m leaving myself open to people that say, ‘Oh gee, I like the 1957 Rollins better,’ but I guess there’s no way I can avoid that.”

‘As the supervisor of the Library’s Magnetic Recording Laboratory, I was thumbing through some tapes awaiting digitization in early 2005 when I noticed eight 10-inch acetate reels of tape labeled “Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957.”

Rollins was an entrepreneur now, having started his own record label, Doxy Records. Releasing both Carnegie Hall performances on a 50th anniversary disc would be an historic accomplishment. The same set, in the same venue, performed by the same artist a half century apart is simply not a possibility for most artists, let alone someone of Rollins’s stature. This is the kind of project a record label would make happen at any cost. It’s especially nice for a musician who owns his own label, because record labels typically own the master recordings. I asked Larry Appelbaum about these intellectual property issues regarding the 1957 tapes.

“For VOA tapes such as these,” he told me, “the intellectual property belongs to the musicians. Of course any label that wants to issue them needs to investigate to make sure there are no underlying rights, such as by the label to which they might have been signed at the time. The Library owns the tapes themselves but not the intellectual property on them, so we cannot issue them without permission of the estate.” As there were no underlying rights issues, Appelbaum sent copies of the tapes to Sonny Rollins, to do with as he pleased.

By all accounts, the 2007 Carnegie Hall performance was masterful and rapturously received. Rollins was joined by bassist Christian McBride and longtime friend Roy Haynes on drums, who hadn’t sat in with Rollins since 1958. The band tore through “Sonnymoon for Two,” took a little breather with “Some Enchanted Evening,” and came out swinging once again with “Moritat.”

“Thank you for coming out to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of one day in the life of one man that you know,” Rollins told the audience at the end of the show.

The resulting album never surfaced. It’s not clear if Rollins ever listened to the 1957 tapes — he admitted to the New York Times in September, 2007 that he had yet to do so — and in any case, considered the new performance below his standard.

The 2007 version of “Some Enchanted Evening” did make it onto the Sonny Rollins: Road Shows, Vol. 1 CD. “I was at Carnegie Hall that evening,” wrote the culture desk editor of The New Yorker “and it’s incomprehensible that Rollins would have elected not to include those other two electrifying performances as well.”

“No, it’s not coming out,” Rollins said flatly in 2008. “I didn’t like the recording after I heard it, so I’m not going to put that out. … I didn’t really feel that I was playing up to a level that I wanted, as a 50th anniversary recording. So I didn’t think it was ready to be put out, you know. I’ll be putting out other records.”

I asked Larry Appelbaum about why the 1957 performance remains unissued as well. “Of course we all know he has very high standards,” Appelbaum wrote me, “so maybe he didn’t think his performance made the grade. Hard to believe though, because it is a terrific ride. But there’s one flubbed note on ‘Moritat’ that may have nixed that.”

It’s possible that history may have burdened Sonny Rollins that night in 2007. In The Nation, critic David Yaffe wrote, “Rollins must have felt the weight of expectations when he received a standing ovation for just showing up.” He’s one of the few left standing from that era — his role models are all gone, and most of his contemporaries with them. The extraordinary success of Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall may also have added some unwelcome pressure, and now Rollins was even in competition with yet another formidable player: his younger self; the one who once played a night at the Village Vanguard. It would be hard, thus laden, to take flight.

At the heart of all this promise, fulfillment, and disappointment is an uncompromising artist, one almost constitutionally incapable of looking back. But how Sonny Rollins, who hasn’t listened to A Night At The Village Vanguard since shortly after its release, feels about his music is not how you should.

“Listeners may hear one thing, and I’m humbled to be able to reach them and touch them,” he said in the JazzWax interview. “But I hear things differently. Just because I’m able to touch people with my music doesn’t mean that what I’m looking for in my music has been met. What I’m looking for perhaps is unattainable. I know that. But I certainly have a right to try to achieve it. It’s my duty to achieve it. I don’t feel I’ve done enough in music to simply rest on my laurels. I have my own ideas about that. If you don’t mind, that’s how I feel about myself.”


Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Sam Schuyler